Nothing spurs a verbal firefight quicker than questioning the worth of an institution or industry. Those in doubt should Google "health care" or "military industrial complex" just to see how many critics weigh in.
But if you really want to watch the fur fly, question the legitimacy and value of a college education. Few institutions boast the thin skins and bloated egos of academia, characteristics on red alert thanks to a new book expressing skepticism, even doubt, over the current worth of an undergraduate degree.
Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It was written by two academics: Andrew Hacker, a professor at Queens College, and Claudia Dreifus, science writer for The New York Times and a Columbia University professor. In a recent interview, Dreifus pulled no punches in her harsh assessment of academia — and the financial and emotional damage the college system is inflicting on young Americans.
MainStreet: What was the genesis for your book?
Dreifus: My partner Andrew is a long-time teacher, first at Cornell and now at Queen’s College in New York. I began teaching as a journalism teacher and I’m now at Columbia. Over the years, we’ve become fairly stunned over the culture of higher education, with all its caste systems and rituals. It’s a culture an anthropologist would love — very different and very detached from the real world.
MainStreet: You argue the undergraduate experience is no longer a priority with colleges. Could you elaborate?
Dreifus: Andrew and I came of age at a time when teaching really mattered and was important. I’m not saying teaching is in decline now, or is in any way debased, but there is a marked difference at the undergraduate level. It seems that the purpose of most colleges is to serve the interest of the graduate faculty, not so much for the undergraduates. Wages for undergrad professors seem like they’re at migrant worker levels. Training is a problem, too. Kindergarten teachers get better training than undergraduate professors.
MainStreet: What role does money play in your book?
Dreifus: It’s huge. Tuition costs today are two-and-half-times higher in real dollars than tuition costs 30 years ago. That’s real money. Then there’s the way that tuition is financed today. Basically, schools are saying to students “you can always take a loan to come here.” But we think it’s immoral for a college to stick young people with six-figure student loan debt. We know a 22-year-old college graduate who owes nearly $70,000 in loan debt — and she had a (partial) scholarship. Her story is not an anomaly — there are many more stories like that.